NBC Sports Boss Dick Ebersol Steps Down

TV vet fails to come to terms with Comcast suits

NBC on Thursday confirmed that Dick Ebersol has resigned after steering the network’s sports properties for nearly a quarter-century.

Ebersol stepped down from his post as NBC Sports chairman with 18 months left on a nine-year contract. According to sources who worked alongside Ebersol, the TV veteran could not come to an agreement on a new deal with NBCU/Comcast overlord Steve Burke.

The news shocked the sports media universe, coming on the heels of Ebersol’s jaunty pitch at NBC’s upfront. The 63-year-old seemed to be in a playful mood on Monday, tossing Nerf footballs into the crowd of media buyers huddled near the front of the stage at the Hilton Hotel.

In a heartfelt note to colleagues, Ebersol said he leaves his post with the knowledge that he’s been “fortunate enough to have more deep and meaningful friendships than any man could imagine.” He went on to thank “all of those people who have touched me so deeply throughout my career.”

Stepping in for Ebersol is Mark Lazarus, the former Turner Sports chief who joined Comcast in an advisory capacity two months before the cable operator’s acquisition of NBCU. Lazarus was named president of the NBC Sports Cable Group in February.

Ebersol’s departure casts a shadow over NBC’s upcoming bid for the rights to the 2014 and 2016 Olympic Games. The international sporting event has long been Ebersol’s baby; the exec has produced eight Olympic broadcasts and has negotiated terms of each NBC package going back to the late 1980s, when he acquired the rights to the 1992 Barcelona Games.

As recently as February—two weeks after Comcast named Ebersol chairman of the NBC Sports Group––Burke began undermining talk of a big bid, telling investors, “We’re here to make money, and we’re going to be disciplined.” He added that Comcast’s aim was to “concentrate on businesses that have good returns.”

While it’s a tremendous promotional platform and an undeniable feather in NBC Sports’ cap, the Olympics may be too rich for Comcast’s blood. Despite putting up robust ratings, NBC lost $223 million on the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver—the first time an Ebersol-produced Olympics has failed to generate a profit—and the fiscally sober cable giant may be disinclined to invest in the Sochi and Rio package as a result.

All told, the 2010/2012 package cost $2.2 billion: $1.18 billion for the London games, $820 million for Vancouver, and $200 million that former NBC owner General Electric invested in a global Olympic sponsorship.

None of which suggests that NBC will sit out the bidding process. Comcast CEO Brian Roberts reportedly told the IOC that Comcast will make a competitive offer next month, as the company remains “100 percent committed” to the games. Sealed bids are to be submitted to IOC officials in Lausanne, Switzerland, on June 6 and 7.

NBC is still considered the front-runner in the race for the games, although the network is likely to face stiff competition in ESPN and Fox. The Sochi and Rio package is expected to fetch in excess of $2 billion.

ESPN and Fox are of increasing interest, given their newly forged alliance. Earlier this month, the two networks teamed up on a $3 billion deal to nail down the TV rights to all Pac-12 football and basketball games. The joint bid knocked Comcast/NBCU out of the running.

The newly cozy relationship between ESPN and Fox could have an impact on their respective Olympics bids; if nothing else, the nets could work together to force Comcast/NBCU to submit an inflated bid.

Last month, Ebersol nailed down his first—and last—major sports rights pact since Comcast and NBCU joined forces, negotiating a 10-year, $2 billion package to carry NHL games. Ebersol outmaneuvered rival bidder ESPN, which punted the NHL rights in 2005 after a 21-year run with the league. 

Under the terms of NBC’s earlier contract with the NHL, the network did not pay a fee to carry live games. Instead, it worked out a revenue-sharing deal. Cable partner Versus, now a part of the NBC Sports family, paid $72.5 million per year for its NHL package.

Ebersol has produced eight of the top 10 most-watched sporting events in history and has been the architect of NBC’s Olympics strategy as long as he’s been with the network.  “Dick Ebersol is an incredible talent whose contributions to the company over the last four decades in sports, news, and entertainment are unsurpassed,” said Burke, who serves as CEO of NBCU and evp of Comcast Corporation.

“Dick has masterfully produced everything from the Olympics and Sunday Night Football . . . and helped create Saturday Night Live,” Burke said. “We will miss his intellect, experience, and passion for the television business.”